Everybody -- including the president -- wanted a piece of Marat Safin.
'Please, wait for me. I will talk with you, like I promised,' Marat Safin, the new U.S. Open champion, told a reporter as Safin was being hustled between three interview rooms in Arthur Ashe Stadium. Before gangs of international TV crews and print journalists, Safin recounted his dramatic victory over Pete Sampras in the final in all three of the languages that he speaks (Russian, Spanish, and English, in descending order of proficiency).

Safin was then whisked away to Louis Armstrong Stadium to pose for official USTA photos, stopping along the way to sign autographs and have a picture taken with the Tennis Center�s night cleanup crew. Finally, four hours after the final, he hit the locker room for a few one-on-ones. First up, a phone call from President Clinton. But before he could speak to the leader of the free world, Safin had a prior obligation to fulfill: an ITF drug test. Talk about your pressure to perform! And Safin was flunking.

'What�s the matter,' asked one reporter on the scene, 'can�t squeeze out something for the President?'

After that mission was finally accomplished, the 20-year-old Russian was ready to take Clinton�s call. 'I look forward to visiting you at your White House,' he said. In an era when men�s tennis is often criticized for a shortage of engaging personalities, Marat Safin isn�t your run- of-the-mill Grand Slam champion. And it�s not just his cover-of-People good looks that set him apart from the ATP pack. Rather, it�s his refreshing candor and wonderfully self-effacing sense of humor, made all the more endearing by his sometimes problematic English syntax. He�s easily the most colorful European player since Goran Ivanisevic, that malapropian philosopher from Split, Croatia. Safin, himself a fan of Ivanisevic, doesn�t dispute the comparison: 'I think Goran was like this from the beginning. He didn�t just become crazy when he was on ATP. The same like me, yes? I was like this already.'

Safin was also sharp enough not to miss a beat when a reporter asked him a question from out of left field: 'So, Marat, who would you want to be your partner if you were on the Survivor show?'

'For sure, Macaulay Culkin.' 'Huh? OK. The Home Alone kid. Why?'
'He showed he could get out of danger at such a young age. He�s older now and must be a much more clever guy to help me survive.' He shot the questioner a grin that said, 'Is good answer, no?'

Safin has a tendency to discount his considerable appeal. When asked about the ATP�s New Balls, Please marketing campaign, which is intended to make stars of Safin and other young players, he said, 'It�s very nice, but [fans] want to see Pete, they want to see Agassi.'

To support the hypothesis that he�s a 'nobody,' he explained that at least one official at the U.S. Open seemed completely unaware of his existence.

'They didn�t even know me in, how you say, transportation desk. I say, �Please, can I have a car to come to the stadium?� '

'What's your name?'


'Can you spell it, please?'

'Next time, I will go with sign,' he says, pointing to his forehead: I�M MARAT SAFIN. So people can remember me.'

-- Warren Florence